hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

October 27, 2011

Parents organize for new school

By Tim McCarthy
tmccarthy@hgazette.com

Concerned Bradford parents are sending out an S.O.S. to all of Haverhill.

But it isn't a cry of distress — it's a call for action.

Close to 20 families have united to form "Haverhill Parents Saving Our Schools,'' an organization which is demanding city and school leaders find a way to build a new Hunking Middle School in the Bradford section of Haverhill.

"We're pushing for a new school," said Kelly Valaskatgis, one of the group's organizers. "We're not going to let Hunking slide. The school has been overlooked for so long and everyone knew it."

Consisting of parents who packed the Oct. 13 School Committee meeting, the group's primary activities will include a continued presence at upcoming meetings, awareness campaigns, and petitioning for improvements at other Haverhill schools.

The group has also set up a Facebook page to help connect with other Haverhill parents online.

"We're getting all of the parents to stick together," Valaskatgis said, noting she would be happy to stand alongside families from other schools who feel their concerns have been ignored.

The decision to unite under a common banner came when parents such as Valaskatgis and Rhonda Campbell, another organizer of the group, said their individual complaints of a deteriorating and unsanitary Hunking building fell on the deaf ears of city and school leaders over the past several years.

"I've been fighting this battle since 2008," Campbell said. "I know it's not going to happen overnight, but we have to start somewhere."

A structural engineer inspected the school earlier this month after Principal David Cook had noticed cracking throughout several classrooms. The consultant said the foundation throughout the building's right side was at risk of caving in.

Close to 200 students, Hunking's entire sixth grade, are now being bused to classes at a school called Hunking North, located at the former Bartlett School across the Merrimack River.

The engineer estimated the total cost of temporary repairs around $750,000 and said that would make the building stabile for three more years.

Although grateful for a proactive approach by Cook, Hunking parents said the building should never have fallen into such disrepair.

"They were always trying to fix it with Band-Aids," Campbell said. "That should be condemned. There should not be children in that school."

In 2008, Campbell complained about the school's poor air quality to the state Department of Public Health's Bureau of Environmental Health. A report later issued by the bureau documented several factors in the school which contributed to poor breathing conditions.

In September 2010, Hunking parents realized what they couldn't do alone they could accomplish in numbers when ongoing complaints of uncleanliness prompted Superintendent James Scully to order a massive clean-up and repainting of the building.

Pleased with the renewed interest in Hunking by Scully's administration, the parents group will still push for a new school over improvement plans.

"We want it knocked down," Valaskatgis said. "It's time for a new school."

School and city leaders said they're supportive of the group's ambitions, but must keep in mind both the taxpayers citywide footing the bill and providing concrete proof of the need for a new building to the Massachusetts School Building Authority.

"I would be untrue to myself if I didn't support a new building,'' School Committee member Susan Danehy said.

Danehy said a new school building is inevitable and she will work to make sure the city at large supports the plan.

"We need to have better communication so we can get the community to rally on this," she said.

Both Campbell and Valaskatgis echoed Danehy's desire to make it a citywide issue by informing residents that good schools improve the values of nearby homes.

Scully said several structural inspections are taking place at the Hunking this month for a report to be prepared.

"In my opinion there's a need," he said. "There's not a day that goes by I don't spend two hours on Hunking."

Mayor James Fiorentini, chairman of the School Committee, said any project relating to Hunking must be fiscally responsible in order to win the popular support of the entire city.

"We have to bear in mind people have a tough time in our economy," he said. "It has to be an affordable project."

More information about "Haverhill Parents Saving Our Schools" is available at "hpsos" on Facebook.